By Paul Goodman
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There is no point in complaining about Vince Cable's annual left-leaning speech to the Liberal Democrat conference – the crude jokes about bankers, the re-plugging of his beloved mansions tax, the way in which support for deficit reduction is wrapped up in the garnish of social democracy, with Bevin, Cripps and Roy Jenkins prayed in aid. The Business Secretary is a former Labour and SDP Parliamentary candidate, and his roots are on the left. This is a fact of life and Conservatives might as well face it.
His annual knockabout also serves a useful coalition purpose. It not only serves to remind those present that his instincts are at one with theirs – useful, that, if a leadership election ever turns up – but also to reassure them that the Government is worth supporting: if dear old ballroom-dancing Vince thinks taking a turn on the floor with the Tories is permissible, why then it surely must be. Cable felt sure enough of his ground to risk a joke at Rupert Murdoch's expense – an astounding turn-around, given the humiliating loss of his responsibilities for the BSkyB bid within the last year.
No, the real problem with the Business Secretary isn't so much what he said as what he didn't say, not so much what he's doing as what he's not doing. I counted a single reference to cutting red tape – hastily followed by the suggestion that his Coalition partners are slavering at the modern equivalent of putting children up chimneys. ConservativeHome recently published a business manifesto made up of suggestions from think-tanks, some of which have excellent relations with Cable's party.
These included cutting corporation tax faster, ending unilateral carbon policies, regionalising the minimum wage, repealing excessive employment laws, reforming competition policy, and exempting small business from employment legislation altogether. One can see why the Business Secretary wouldn't like all of them, but why is, say, that last proposal offensive to Liberal Democrat values? Why shouldn't liberals be as enthusiastic about deregulation as conservatives? Why, therefore, was the driving need for it so under-stated in Cable's speech?
The Business Secretary wrapped himself in his customary cloak of gloom to warn of hard times ahead. He knows that the Government urgently requires a fully-fledged growth strategy – one which his Department has a duty to draw up and, above all, deliver. Nick Clegg wants the Liberal Democrats to be seen as a responsible party of government. He thus needs a Business Secretary – given the Cabinet division of responsibiliies – who can lead a liberal deregulatory drive. By showing little interest in one, Cable is obstructing his own party as well as ours.